KIDS' STUFF: The Emperor's New Groove (2000)

The Emperor's New Groove (USA, 2000)
Directed by Mark Dindal
Starring David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton

In the early-2000s, Disney released two films with the common theme or device of people being transformed into animals as a means to make them change their ways. One of these films was Brother Bear, which began very strongly before quickly collapsing into Disney convention, irritating sidekicks and sub-par Phil Collins songs. The other was The Emperor's New Groove, which is very enjoyable in spite of its many, many flaws.
It's very difficult to say anything new about the problems facing Disney in the late-1990s and early-2000s, having already addressed them in detail in my reviews of Tarzan, Atlantis and Treasure Planet. Even without having seen all of these films, or watching them in a particular order, we get a very clear indication of the tensions between creativity and commercialism which blighted the company in this period. Heck, you could even garner that from putting one of these offerings against PIXAR or Dreamworks' output of the time (respectively Monsters, Inc. and Shrek).
Happily, we can see these problems in a new light by looking at the film's production history - a story that's arguably more interesting than the film itself, at least on a narrative level. The Emperor's New Groove started out in the mid-1990s under Roger Allers, who recruited Sting to write a number of songs for a film that he hoped would replicate the success of The Lion King. The film, entitled Kingdom of the Sun, was originally intended as a romantic comedy take on Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, with Kuzco changing places with a peasant, Yzma turning him into a llama and Kuzco falling in love with a llama herder.
Feeling that the story was not distinctive enough, Disney's upper management brought in Mark Dindal, who began introducing more comedy elements to the story. The film began pulling in two different directions, resulting in an uneven blend of slapstick and epic drama. With sponsorship and marketing deals already in place, in 1998 executives gave Allers an ultimatum: if the film could not be finished for a summer 2000 release, it would be shut down. Allers resigned, leaving Dindal to retool the film into a broad buddy comedy, discarding Sting's songs in the process.
At this juncture, you may well point out that having this information gives me an unfair perspective on the film. You may argue that knowing about the production problems in advance would put me in a more negative mind-set, and therefore I am less likely to give the film the positive rating it could well deserve. In response, let me say that I go into every film I see knowing very little information about the production save for the director. Information such as this does not shape my opinion, but it does help to explain a lot of the qualities of the film, both good and bad.
Put simply, The Emperor's New Groove is a Disney film which is trying its hardest not to act like a Disney film. It has Disney in its roots, with the initial ideas and titles springing from fables and fairy tales, specifically The Prince and the Pauper and The Emperor's New Clothes. But in almost every other aspect, from its production design to its character dynamics, the film is trying to emulate the success of Dreamworks, who were celebrating the success of Antz when Dindal first came on board.
The most obvious evidence for this is in the script, which focusses on self-referential humour and breaking the fourth wall to disguise what is in the end a very thin plot. Without all the wise-cracking and nods to the adults in the audience, the film would barely stretch to an hour, let alone 80 minutes. The film goes through all the familiar motions of this kind of story, but at a rapid pace - either because it knows its audience is expecting it and therefore doesn't need to try, or because it genuinely doesn't care (with Dreamworks, either is a possibility).
Fortunately, the fast pacing of The Emperor's New Groove works largely to its advantage. Compared to other Disney efforts around the time, which got bogged down through strict adherence to convention, this film feels breezy and light on its feet. It's hardly the most ambitious effort the studio has ever put out - ironically, considering the epic nature of its original incarnation. But for all its flaws it is very entertaining, at least in parts.
There are several prominent moments in the film where things really click together. Most of the physical set-pieces are funny, with the jokes coming in quick succession, building to a good resolution with the characters bouncing off each other. The scene on the cliff side is very good, with the awkward walk leading on nicely to the scorpions, bats and the running through thin air. Likewise the scene in the diner is a very good example of comic confusion, complete with misinformation, mistaken identities and elaborate means of misdirection.
With a little more application, and perhaps more time for fine-tuning, The Emperor's New Groove could have been a truly first-rate farce. There is enough in these scenes that fire to suggest that the whole film could have been sustained by this pace and style of comedy, without needing to rely on references or fourth-wall jokes. Sadly, the bits in-between are not especially memorable in their own right, and the plot as a whole is both thin and a little episodic.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the film makes very little of any of the sources on which it draws. The only aspect retained from The Emperor's New Clothes is the selfishness of Kuzco, who puts his childish whims before the betterment of his people - and even then the character development is delayed as long as possible for the sake of making jokes. Beyond that, it's a very by-the-numbers buddy comedy with elements of a road movie, and if it were not for the decent voice cast it would be completely forgettable.
When it comes to the characters, the film has the same saving graces as The Sword in the Stone - namely a very funny sidekick and a memorable villain. Kronk is on one level just a muscle-bound version of Radcliffe's assistant Wiggins from Pocahontas: he appears completely distracted and stupid, but is often smarter than the people he serves. Whether by skill or sheer luck, Kronk comes across as a funny and adorable guy, whose non-sequiturs often inject energy into the plot (as does his theme song).
Eartha Kitt's performance as Yzma works on the same principle. It's not hard to see the lineage of her character - there are big hints of Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty in her scheming nature and choice of colours. But like Eleanor Audley, Kitt understands the archetype she is playing very well, and manages to do the very best with the little she has to work with. Elsewhere John Goodman is well-cast as Pacha and David Spade does a decent job as Kuzco, though he is very obnoxious at times.
The film's animation reinforces the overall feeling of a film with great moments surrounded by the pedestrian. Kuzco's kingdom is well-designed and brightly coloured, and the jungle scenes contain some really nice touches, such as the pack of jaguars which look like they've escaped from Hercules. No expense is spared on the physical gags, such as Yzma being tar-and-feathered, but shortcuts are taken pretty much everywhere else. Whether the characters refer to it or not, the map gag doesn't cover up how cheap that montage feels.
The Emperor's New Groove is an enjoyable but unambitious entry in the Disney canon. It's probably better than we had any right to expect given its production problems, and like Treasure Planet it is one of the more passable efforts of the early-2000s slump. If you're looking for the memorable magic that underpinned the Renaissance, you won't find much of it here. But as a decent, disposable comedy, it passes the time just fine.


Apologies to Lindsay Ellis (a.k.a. the Nostalgia Chick) for stealing her intro for this review. You can hear her opinions on both Brother Bear and The Emperor's New Groove in her video on Disney sequels here.

NEXT REVIEW: Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)